Dust in the Light is not meant to be a solo effort. To contribute or reach out for any reason, email here.
Search is for "2020..." only.
©2020 Dust in the Light. All rights reserved.
Answering the Need at the Heart of the Turmoil
A common theme characterized the objections that came my way after some social-media expressions of astonishment that Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo had strolled out into a crowd of hundreds of people in Providence without a face covering, without social distancing, sharing a microphone, and holding hands. Had it been just her, one could (maybe) say she’d made the conscious decision that the atmosphere at the Black Lives Matter rally was tense enough that she needed the full, bare expression of her face to reinforce the message of her words. But there was her husband right behind her, also without a mask and without social distancing and wearing his “Knock it off!” t-shirt.
He wore that shirt, no doubt, in homage to his wife, who had made the phrase something of a trademark while chastising Rhode Islanders to follow her pandemic rules religiously. Her commands to lock down at home and adhere to a restrictive code while out in public were necessary, she’d insisted, in order to save lives.
But on that Friday night in early June, a governor who had insisted for months that religious Rhode Islanders could not be trusted to conduct community worship in a safe way led the protesters in prayer.
The objections to my spontaneous reaction uniformly implied that it was superficial (and probably racist) to care about the governor’s COVID-19 hypocrisy more than the anti-racist message of the event, which misses the point in an astonishing way. The attitude that the governor displayed — in harmony with medical professionals who insisted that the rallies were important enough to justify the increased risk of a wave of infections — is more significant than just the politics of it. Her demonstrated belief is that, while the disease is dire enough a threat to shut down our economy and impose the untold cost of forbidding every shared life experience from graduation ceremonies to bedside death vigils for loved ones, political considerations could supply the exceptions.
Now, I don’t mean by this that the rallies were ultimately theater intended toward a political end (which they certainly were for some of the participants), but that the political favorability of the cause that they promoted was what granted the exception to coronavirus restrictions. In the end, what the governor was displaying so gratuitously that Friday night was that the government officials who have seized emergency powers over their territories will determine what is important and what is not.
It is fundamentally religious discrimination imposed by the government when officials determine where rules will be enforced and where they won’t. During the early days of the quarantine, police in one Ocean State city interrupted a religious service where participants had judged 25 people in a space that could fit over 500 would be able to worship in safety. One can reasonably guess that those 25 people thought their actions and its risks were an active way to bring about a better world. We now know that only mass displays called “protests” intended to appease the diversity gods have sufficient gravitas for the governor’s dispensation.
My phrasing, there, may sound flippant, but it is an entry to a deep, and deeply subtle, battle simmering throughout our culture. Consider a recent essay by Joshua Mitchell in a periodical providentially called Providence. In Mitchell’s understanding, what we’re seeing is the emergence of a modern form of paganism. Whereas Christianity emphasizes that Original Sin has its origin in each of us as individuals, which means we can neither be collectively saved nor collectively condemned, paganism locates sin in a people — a tribe united under its own identifying gods.
If Christianity is receding, then we will likely see the return to the pagan understanding that peoples are the proper objects of cathartic rage. That is a sobering truth, which defenders of secularism deny. The real alternatives might not be Christianity or secularism, but rather revelation or paganism. Should we return to paganism, one people will seek to cleanse themselves of stain by venting their cathartic rage on another people. The war between the gods of the nations would resume in full. The “blood and soil” nationalism that is straining to emerge on the Alt-Right is a witness to the reemergence of this pagan view, which is contemptuous of Christianity’s counter-claim, and always will be. What counts in the pagan world of blood is not me, the “person,” but the people of which I am but a representative. What counts in Christianity is the Adam, whose stain I present; and Christ’s sacrifice, through which I am represented to God as righteous. The distance between these two understandings is infinite and unbridgeable.
Even non-believers can recognize that the sides are aligning along something like religious principles. One such non-believer, who is more on the Christian than the pagan side, is National Review columnist Andrew Stuttaford. He writes:
[In the cases of Chinese aggression against the Uighurs and Hong Kong], the malefactors are not part of the wicked West; they are not the white us. The horrors they inflict are of little concern to a generation (or, now, generations) of whites caught up in the delirium of identity politics. Their interest lies in highlighting, and then sharing in the blame for, the offenses committed by whites. In accepting their guilt by reason of ethnicity, they proclaim their innate sinfulness and use such confessions (followed by performative repentance) as evidence of their moral superiority and, in a good number of instances, a power play: narcissism with benefits. Being able to navigate the ever-more-demanding rules of wokeness is a skill well-rewarded in academia, politics, and, increasingly, the workplace.
For Stuttaford, the defining angst of our time is an “elite overproduction,” wherein our society has produced too many more people with the skills and expectations to join the upper crusts than it has crusty positions to fill. In this setting, being adept at wokeness can be a valuable and differentiating skill under the right political pressures. That will not last, however. With the development of artificial intelligence, many of the day jobs of our elite will evaporate, or at least will lose the advantage of their remuneration.
Being an atheist, Stuttaford can only see “a power struggle that will eventually deliver much greater trouble ahead.” Thus, his is essentially than an updated lament along familiar lines for those who’ve worried about the ability of a free, Western economy to accommodate the coming technological advances.
A religious context is more helpful, here. If we are not pagans in Mitchell’s sense, then we must realize that the movement we oppose is made up of individuals trying to fill some need… to answer some calling. If that is the basic challenge, then the solution is simple: We can win this victory for God by supplying His meaning.
Governor Raimondo’s Catholic background is strong enough that she naturally turned to the Christian framing for her June 5 protest prayer:
Pray with me. Ask our Lord, the Awesome Almighty, for wisdom, for peace, and for love, and for each of us to find humanity in one another. Everybody wants [others] to know what it’s like to be them. So let’s commit ourselves to understanding what it’s like to be the Other.
The progressive works that she enumerated in her speech to the crowd, however, are not sources of meaning. They simply constitute a platform of using government to take from some people to give to other people. We’ve seen this in the overt Marxism of leaders of Black Lives Matter. More-locally, we can see it in the head-spinning pivot of Democrat Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell from complimenting the “good symbolic step” of changing Rhode Island’s name to the demand that we address “poverty and inequalities,” including a requirement that employers pay workers no less than $15 per hour regardless of the market value of the work being done.
The meaning that progressive policies provide is one and the same as that which Mitchell calls “pagan.” The emphasis is not on the experiences and attitudes that make one’s life better; it is on the contrast between groups. And in the progressive framing, those groups aren’t temporary and circumstantial categories of individuals — people who happen to be employers now and people who happen to be low-wage workers for the time being. They are identity groups with implicitly permanent and distinct conditions and beliefs. The emphasis is on the method of punishment and reward through redistributed wealth between two groups. One group pays, and the other receives.
So as to sweep away the inevitable fog that economic policy brings to social questions, look to a later tweet from Ranglin-Vassell:
Good morning family, friends and supporters ! I need your help . Word on the street is that I will have a primary by a white guy who is determined to replace me with the sole intention of keeping the Status Quo in place and silencing my Voice.
She clearly delineates two groups: hers and the Other’s. She doesn’t merely need support to overcome a challenger; she needs help fighting against that demon of our modern day, the “white guy.” Her opponent doesn’t merely have ideas with which she disagrees; his desire to represent a different perspective is, itself, an attempt to silence her “Voice,” capitalized so as to imply that it is actually the shared Voice of her People.
This is the profound conflict underlying Governor Gina Raimondo’s failure to wear a mask to an identity politics protest. As a civic leader, she had been exercising power well beyond what our representative democracy ordinarily allows, and she found this event to be meaningful enough to suspend her rules of life and death. Moreover, it was the activity that made it meaningful, the activism.
During a period while religious worship had been decreed insufficiently meaningful, a protest had sufficiency. Placing our culture war in this context, conservatives’ competing to have protests and political events that are equally meaningful would spell ultimate defeat, because it would cede the central question. It would accept the assumptions of secular progressivism, thereby ensuring that secular progressivism ultimately wins.
What’s needed is an alternate source of meaning that is at the same time more-individualistic and more-unifying.
Featured image: A still from the Facebook live video of Gina Raimondo’s speech posted by WPRI.